Rest Stops, Call Boxes Make for Roadside Wonderland

Thomas Mullen
May 28, 2015

All over the country, transportation agencies work around the clock to keep our nation’s roads safe, clear and driveable. But they’re also responsible for a vastly larger and more dubious area of our nation’s infrastructure – the sides of those roads. Because for every mile of highway in our country, there are twice as many miles (that’s one on each side, buster) of medians, shoulders, cloverleafs, and culverts to keep safe, trimmed, trash-free and occasionally even useful. Once the sketchy domain of hitchhikers, traffic tickets, and accident disputes, these marginal masses of land are going through a bit of a renaissance in recent years and are now home to some amazing and, at times, even adorable efforts on the part of our country’s transportation planners. So with no further ado, here’s the official SmartComment list of the best things happening beside America’s byways.

Runaway Truck Ramps
Among the many tactics that transportation officials undertake to make America’s roadways safer, perhaps none are as captivating to the imagination as the runaway truck ramp. The white lion of America’s highway system, these well-marked pits of loose gravel appear primarily in mountainous areas on steeps downhill grades and have rarely been captured on camera in anything but their usual hibernating state. So just what is it about these truck-stopping roadside quarries that are so darned intriguing? Their Incredible Hulk-like ability to stop a runaway truck in its tracks? The compelling idea that it might be fun – you know, maybe just once before you die – to run your car into one like a child diving into a big pit of colored balls? Whatever the reason, we aren’t alone in our curiosity. This video of a runaway ramp test in Canada appears to have attracted a crowd worthy of a Space Shuttle launch. And a quick stroll around the Internet tells us these semi-catching sandboxes have a lore every bit as mysterious and alluring as Bigfoot. Most accounts peg their origins to around the 1960s, but like all great legends nobody can really say for sure. One random factoid shows that by 1990, there were about 170 ramps in 27 states – mostly in the West. And while nobody we know has ever seen one of these ramps in action, a 1981 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration notes that runaway ramps were used in a whopping 87 percent of the 2,450 runaway truck accidents that year. Whatever the real story is with these high-speed zen gardens, we at SmartComment can safely say that if we are ever called to handle a public comment period for putting a new one in somewhere, our only comment will be, “Heck to the yes!”

Call Boxes
It’s been said that if you have to use a pay phone these days, your life has taken a very wrong turn. You can pretty much quintuple that if circumstances ever force you to resort to using a highway call box — those plastic yellow cases placed every few miles along the shoulder of major freeways that are big transportation’s answer to those “Break Glass in an Emergency” boxes in your office hallway. Because while you may have cut the cord on your land line back in 2009, that turnpike near your house has no such plans! Roughly briefcase-sized and bolted to a retaining wall or post, they appear much like the random Eiffel Tower phone used by the bad guys threatening to blow up Paris in the second Superman movie. And while we at SmartComment have trouble envisioning the Seinfeldian confluence of tragedies that would ever necessitate their use, certainly someone somewhere has had to use these things, right? I mean, why else have them? We imagine the average call box conversation would have to go something like this: “Hi there, I’ve been in an accident. No, not a bad one. I mean, bad enough to cripple my car and knock the power out on my iPhone for some reason, but not so bad that I couldn’t walk five miles to this callbox without somehow seeing a cop or even a single carload of strangers willing to help me. Could you please send a tow truck with a Gatorade, a pack of moleskin, and an iPhone 6 charger? Thanks!” Now sure, any proponent of transportation innovation will tell you call boxes are the ultimate safety net in an industry built on safety, blah, blah, blah. But let’s be honest: for such a visible part of the highway safety equation, nobody’s ever put an incredible amount of energy into explaining how exactly one of these call boxes work. Is it button-dial? Rotary? Or does it just automatically go to some reception desk like that entry access phone outside your old dorm? Whatever safety multiplier it is that justifies the existence of the modern call box, we think there’s a more cynical use behind these plastic-encased enigma machines. Because any transportation agency with the right vision could easily fund any future initiative on their agenda by simply dropping an album of their greatest callbox messages on the Apple Store and watching the dollars start falling from digital heaven. Just sayin’.

Rest Stops
For something that has brought sweet relief to so many, rest stops get a pretty bad rap. But not here! We love us a rest stop. And we’re not talking about the theme park variety with restaurants, rides and its own website. We’re talking about a parking lot, a half-acre of hard-scrabble dirtgrass, and a few picnic tables – all centered around a cinder block restroom hut with prison toilets made of freezing cold steel. Some of our happiest childhood memories took place in these hardy outposts, where we sometimes managed to eat two mom-prepared bologna sandwiches and get in a full half of Nerf rules football while dad was in the can. Laugh if you want, but when the zombie apocalypse hits, these remote highway havens may very well be humanity’s last hope.

Litter Pickers
If you’re the type of person who gets depressed when you see a windblown dune of litter in a highway culvert big enough to form the foundation of a house, let us just say: we get it. Litter sucks. And picking it up is both expensive and awful. California alone spent $63 million in taxpayer dollars to remove 193,000 cubic yards of litter from the state’s roadways last year. And don’t even get us started about cigarette butts. Every year Americans litter around 176 million pounds of those. But allow us to look at this glass as half full for a second and point out that perhaps nowhere in America are litter’s days of freedom numbered like they are on the side of a highway. The average highway culvert is basically a killzone for wayward litter, which clusters obliviously in easy-to-spot mounds for any professional DOT litter crew or properly supervised group of community-service awardees. If the sight of highway litter depresses you (and it should), it might help to consider that at least it’s on the last legs of its litter life cycle. Like a nine ball clinging to the lip of the corner pocket, it’s going away soon – especially in the hands of a professional like your average transportation crew. But don’t litter. Seriously. It’s terrible.

Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing that pleases our OCD more than the sight of a government thresher trimming an unkempt bramble of median weeds into a nicely trimmed carpet of green goodness. But then, the Washington State DOT went and broke out goat power on their roadside weed problem and, well, we fell in love. Not only are goats cuter, more intrepid and better for the environment than traditional weed control, apparently something about their digestive process sterilizes weed seed and prevents new vegetation from taking root. That’s right: goat spit is like nature’s Roundup. Who knew? Right now, this goat armada is being deployed throughout the state as part of a pilot program to see if the benefits of these clover munchers outweighs the added cost of feeding and keeping them. But to us, this is one pilot that needs to go straight to series. We will seriously binge-watch goats. Is that weird?